Roughly 3,000 Shastas lived in their region in the eighteenth century. Shastas, Konomihus, Okwanuchus, and New River Shastas make up the Shastan division of the Hokan language family.
Shastas lived in villages of one or more families. Each of the large villages, as well as each of the four divisions, had a headman who acquired office in a loose hereditary succession and whose duties included mediating disputes among men and preaching correct behavior. The headman's wife had similar responsibilities among women.
Shamans were usually women. They cured through the use of supernatural powers, which were also the source of all disease and death (except ill will). They acquired these powers through dream trances, during which a spirit, or pain, taught the shaman its song. An extended training period followed the trance experience. Shamans acquired certain paraphernalia over the years. They diagnosed by singing, dancing, or blowing tobacco smoke and cured by sucking. If a shaman lost too many patients, she was killed. Shamans' services were also available to kill an enemy (by throwing a pain) and to find lost or stolen objects and people. Doctors, who cured by using medicinal plants, were also women.
The Shastas observed numerous life cycle food and behavior taboos. Puberty activities for boys included an optional vision-seeking quest, which ensured success in male activities such as hunting, fishing, gambling, and racing. The girls' puberty ceremony and dance were the group's most important. Marriage required the payment of a bride price. Wealthy men occasionally had more than one wife. Divorce was unusual. The dead were buried in family plots; their possessions were burned or buried. Widows cut their hair (widowers singed it), covered their head and face with a pitch and charcoal mixture until remarriage, and observed several taboos. Souls were said to travel east along the Milky Way to the home of Mockingbird, a figure in Shasta mythology.
Both bitter feuds and friendships characterized Shasta intragroup relations. Payment usually resolved interpersonal differences. Families (through the male line) owned exclusive rights to specific hunting or fishing places within the village territory at large. Money and wealth were measured in deer-skins, clamshell disks, dentalia, and woodpecker scalps. Games included ring-and-pin, shinny (a variation of hockey), target games, and the men's grass (hand) and women's many-stick games.
Rectangular winter homes were set about three feet into the ground. With earth sidewalls and wooden end walls, they held between one and four families. All houses faced the water. Furnishings included tule pillows and wooden stools. Some groups used tule or raccoon skin bed coverings; others used elk skin or deerskin blankets or imported buffalo hides. The community house was similar, but larger. Boys past puberty and unmarried men slept in the sweat house if their village contained one. The menstrual hut was generally located on the west side of the village. Other structures included brush shelters in the spring and summer and bark houses during the fall acorn-gathering season.
Shastas usually ate two meals a day. Venison was a staple. Hunters also brought in bear, fowl, turtles, and various small game. Their methods included stalking and the use of drop pits and traps. Various hunting rituals and taboos included not eating one's first kill. Meat was boiled, baked (in earth ovens), broiled, or dried. Insects were parched or baked.
Men also fished for salmon, mussels, trout, and eels, using spears, nets, and traps. There were several First Fish rituals and taboos. Fresh salmon was generally roasted. Acorns were another staple. In addition to acorns, gathered foods included pine nuts, roots, seeds, greens, bulbs, and berries. Dried foodstuffs were ground into flour. Men were often served before women.
The four Shasta groups traded with each other as well as among the villages of each group. They traded acorns (Achumawis, Wintuns) and acorn paste (Rogue River Athapaskans), clamshell beads (northern peoples), and buckskin, obsidian, and dentalia (Warm Springs Indians). They obtained obsidian (Achumawis), buckskin clothing (Warm Springs Indians), otter skins (northern peoples), dentalia (Rogue River Athapaskans), and pine nut necklaces (Wintuns). Trade with their northern neighbors generally excluded the Klamaths and the Modocs. From their California neighbors, the Shastas received acorns, baskets, dentalia, obsidian blades, juniper, and Wintun beads.
Clothing was made of deerskin and shredded bark. People also wore shell necklaces, ear and nose ornaments, face and body paint, and tattoos. Heads were flattened for aesthetic reasons. Caps were of basketry (by women) and buckskin (by men). Foot-gear included buckskin ankle-length moccasins and snowshoes.
The four groups occasionally fought each other. They also engaged in intragroup feuds, primarily for revenge of witchcraft, murder, rape, and insult to a headman. Other occasional enemies included the Achomawis, Wintuns, and Modocs (in retaliation for the latter's raiding). Weapons included the bow and arrow, knives, and rod armor vests. Peace settlements included disarmament and payments. Young women occasionally accompanied a Shasta war party. They might be taken captive but were usually returned as part of the settlement.
Fur trappers in the 1820s were the first non-Native presence in the Shasta region. Their influence was relatively benign, in sharp contrast to that of the settlers who soon followed in their wake. Although the Shastas often fought each other and their neighbors, they all banded together in the 1850s to resist the Anglo invaders. In 1851, a treaty called for a Shasta reservation in Scott Valley, but the state of California refused to let the treaty be ratified. After the signing, Indians ate a meal at which the food had been poisoned with strychnine; thousands more Indians died during the ensuing attacks by white vigilantes.
The few surviving Shastas were forced onto the Grand Ronde and later Siletz Reservations. Among the other treaties that included the Shastas was the 1864 Klamath Treaty, in which, unbeknownst to them, their aboriginal homeland was ceded. The Shastas participated in the late-nineteenth-century religious revivals, including the Ghost Dance, Earth Lodge cult, and Big Head cult.